Film: The New World

I am a great fan of the films of Terence Malick, and so I was delighted to read John Patterson’s recent article proclaiming Malick’s The New World as the single film masterpiece of the decade just ending.

It may seem like an exaggeration, but with The New World cinema has reached its culmination, its apotheosis. It is both ancient and modern, cinema at its purest and most organic, its simplest and most refined, made with much the same tools as were available in the infancy of the form a century ago to the Lumières, to Griffith and Murnau. Barring a few adjustments for modernity – colour, sound, developments in editing, a hyper-cine-literate audience – it could conceivably have been made 80 years ago (like Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu). This is why, I believe, when all the middlebrow Oscar-dross of our time has eroded away to its constituent molecules of celluloid, The New World will stand tall, isolated and magnificent, like Kubrick’s black monolith. Anything else that survives from now till then will by comparison probably resemble 2001’s grunting apes. To quote, simultaneously, Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and primitivist auteur Sam Fuller – whose 1957 western Run of the Arrow is a sort of thematic inbred bastard cousin of The New World – Malick is seeking “in a word: emotion!”
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Theatre Lakatos

Last night, I caught a new Australian play derived from the life of logician Kurt Godel, called Incompleteness.  The play is by playwright Steven Schiller and actor Steven Phillips, and was peformed at Melbourne’s famous experimental theatrespace, La Mama, in Carlton. Both script and performance were superb:  Congratulations to both playwright and actor, and to all involved in the production.
Godel was famous for having kept every piece of paper he’d ever encountered, and the set design (pictured here) included many file storage boxes.  Some of these were arranged in a checkerboard pattern on the floor, with gaps between them.  As the Godel character (Phillips) tried to prove something, he took successive steps along diagonal and zigzag paths through this pattern, sometimes retracing his steps when potential chains of reasoning did not succeed.   This was the best artistic representation I have seen of the process of attempting to do mathematical proof:  Imre Lakatos’ philosophy of mathematics made theatrical flesh.

There is a photograph of the La Mama billboard at Paola’s site.

Bach in Manchester

Last night I heard a thrilling performance in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by Manchester Camerata, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and the choristers of Manchester Cathedral, under Nicholas Kraemer.   The two orchestras and choirs were arranged on the left and right sides of the stage, with the children’s chorus in between.  I have seen this work staged in many different ways, including with the choirs seated side-by-side, and even enmeshed together (overlayed is what a computer scientist would say; gemuddled might be the appropriate German word).   I think last night’s staging was probably the best I have heard, since the various parts were much more distinguishable than they are normally, and the stereophonic effects quite powerful.
The evangelist was James Gilchrist, whom I have heard in this part before, and he gave an intense and very dramatic performance, as close to a theatrical performance as a singer can get.   The other soloists – Matthew Hargreaves (as Christ), Elizabeth Weisberg, Clare Wilkinson, Mark Le Brocq and Stephen Loges – all gave solid, hall-filling and hall-stopping performances.
The continuo part was played on two small organs, a cello and a lute.   This is the first time I have heard a lute in this Passion – I guess finding a viola da gamba player is normally hard enough, let alone a lutist.  I was sitting close enough to hear the lute, played by Lynda Sayce, and it added a nice, somewhat bitter-sweet, edge to the overall sound.   I doubt this could be heard further back, though.   The lute, the cello, played by Jonathan Price, and one organ, played by Ashok Gupta, were physically located around the Evangelist, which had the effect of making the singer and continuo more of a single unit in the recitatives than is usual.  Often, the recitatives in the music of Bach seem a little out of place to me – neither quite speech nor quite song – and so putting the singer with the continuo created a mini-ensemble which had its own coherent logic.   I was sitting quite close to this group, and thus could see their playing and their co-ordination with one another, as well as hear each part well.   I was particularly impressed by Gupta’s confident playing.
The other organ, played by Christopher Stokes, was at the far rear of the stage, and I could hear it less well.  I suppose it was placed there to be near the walk-on soloists.   In the main, the voices of these soloists did not project so well last night, at least not to my position in the left front stalls, diagonally opposite and down stage from them.    (I expect the hall’s acoustics were not designed for projection in that way – most concert hall projection is designed to be up and out from the stage, rather than across and down stage).  Perhaps because of his strong voice, the only singer who stood out in this regard was Adam Drew (as Judas), who sang confidently and dramatically.
With a work of such great spiritual depth, I always feel that immediate applause is not appropriate.  We should sit, still and silent, for a few moments upon completion, to meditate on the meaning of what we have just heard. I’ve never met an audience that agrees with me, however, and last night was no exception.
Of the dozen or so times I have heard this Passion, across three continents, last night’s superb performance was one of the best two or three.

Earlier posts on music are here.

Poem: Mnemosyne

Another poem by Joe Stickney, following Song.   This is Mnemosyne, which on the surface appears to be a straightforward poem about a country where he had lived in the past (given the title, probably Greece, which Stickney knew well).  However, reading the poem carefully, one sees that it also about that country we have all visited, called The Past.

Quoting this poem allows me to point you to Ljova Zurbin’s wonderful setting of the poem, available here.  What I find particularly powerful in this setting is the repetition of the varying refrains as a final verse, which brings Stickney’s argument into clear focus.

I had the rare chance to see Ljova and the Kontraband perform this song and other great music live at The Stone last weekend.  Ljova played a 6-string viola with a facility and fluency that Paganini would have envied:  the man must have about 20 fingers on his left hand!   Lots of what they played did not make it onto their great CD, so I hope they are able to release a second CD soon.

It’s autumn in the country I remember.
How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.
The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.
I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.
The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.
There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I ‘d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.
It rains across the country I remember.

PS (2016-09-09):  Another wonderful song about the invocation of memories, suddenly, is The Bones of You by Elbow, official video here.